Explore the remote northern reaches of Albania and take one of the world’s best boat trips with a cruise through the mountainous corridors of Lake Koman. Experience daily life in the Valbona Valley with a stay at a local guesthouse. Clink glasses with the locals in the village and hike the rugged valley passes.. Sail across the blue waters of Lake Ohrid, one of Europe’s oldest lakes. No wonder North Macedonia and Albania share this beautiful attraction – nobody would want to let it go.. Kososvo is rich in history and contrasts. Step back in time and learn about the infamous Battle of Kosovo on a day trip to the Field of Blackbirds, before embracing the modern culture thriving in Prishtina, Europe’s youngest capital.
It’s hard to find a patch of Europe that as secluded as this one. Hard, but not impossible. Among the rugged mountains and green fields of Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia there are plenty of shepherds, monasteries, lakes, valleys and Byzantine churches – what’s lacking is crowds. It’s taken decades for the Balkans to wipe away memories of conflict and communism, but (amazingly) they’ve emerged strong and smiling. From hip cafes in Skopje and the soft shores of Lake Ohrid to the mosques of picture-perfect Prizren, this 15-day adventure showcases Balkan beauty at its very best.
Mire se vini – welcome to Tirana, Albania. If you arrive early, perhaps get your bearings of the city with a walk around town. Tirana is filled with activity, from its traffic to its nightlife, but on its doorstep are mosques, citadels, Ottoman architecture and museums. This is a truly progressive city that's working hard to alleviate the Soviet bloc feeling that pervaded it for so long. In the evening, perhaps head out for dinner with your new crew.
Tirana / Shkoder
This morning head out on a leader-led orientation walk of central Tirana. It’s the capital of Albania and its biggest city, but it's still small and compact, with architectural influences from Italy and Turkey. Visit the Skanderbeg Monument, the mosaic on the National History Museum and the Palace of Culture, which are all located on Skanderbeg Square. The main sight in Tirana is the Et'hem Bey Mosque, which sits right on the city's main square. The mosque is currently closed for extensive renovation works, but you can still take a look at the frescoes outside and in the portico that depict trees, waterfalls and bridges. After lunch, take a local bus to Shkoder, one of the oldest cities in Europe (approximately 2 hours). Upon arrival, head out on a short walk with your leader along the Pjaca – the main pedestrian street – lined with 19th-century architecture and dominated by Ebu Beker Mosque. Later in the afternoon, why not head north of the city to visit the Venetian era Rozafa Castle, set high on a mountain with panoramic views of the Albanian countryside.
Lake Koman / Valbona Valley
Take an early morning transfer to Lake Koman (approximately 1.5 hours), where you'll board a ferry between Koman and Fierza, in the remote north eastern corner of the country (approximately 3 hours). Locals use the boats here when returning from shopping trips or school in the cities, with the boat drifting to the sides to drop off or pick up passengers waiting on the banks, waving for attention. Along the way, you'll have the opportunity to take in the scenery of cliff walls on both sides of the narrow lake. The mountains that surround the lake and can reach over 1700 metres in height are almost uninhabited, except for the occasional settlement. This is one of the most beautiful boat rides you will ever take – emerald water merging with the green vegetation dotting the bright white cliffs. Upon arrival to Fierza, you'll be transferred to your guesthouse in Valbona Valley, where a delicious home cooked meal awaits.
Take an excursion deeper into the remote Valbona Valley – complete with green meadows of traditional houses, farmland, and alpine trees. Due to the remoteness of the region and the lack of tourist infrastructure, today's activities will come as a surprise to all of us, including the leader! You may go for a hike in the surrounding mountains, walking through wide valleys and thick forests, or you might simply hang out in the village with the locals. One of the best things about Albania is the people – their warmth to strangers is infectious and you're bound to find yourself having a chat and swapping stories over a glass of raki or two. This is a great place to discover the history of Albania from the people who have lived through it, and to learn about the local way of life. Perhaps discover more about the stories of bloody feuds, said to be carried out in the name of the Kanun code: the customs that governed all aspects of life in the mountains.
Today you'll cross the border into Kosovo by private vehicle (approximately 2 hours). Tiny Kosovo is Europe’s newest (official) country: a handful of landlocked mountains, poppy-dotted meadows and oak forests smack bang in the middle of the Balkans. The shadow of conflict in the late 90s has kept Kosovo off traveller's radars but go there today and you can feel that shadow lifting, and Europe’s youngest member is definitely making up for lost time. The first stop in this newly independent country will be the Decani Monastery. Time stands still here – a place of stunning art heritage, but whose symbolic significance as a Serbian Orthodox cultural monument unfortunately makes it vulnerable to destruction. Continue on to Peja (Pec in Serbian) – the gateway to the Rugova Mountains and a major agricultural centre (approximately 30 minutes). Visit the beautifully restored Peja Bazaar, dating back to Ottoman times, and Bajrakli Mosque. Having been destroyed twice in the last 80 years, the bazaar has been fully rebuilt after the Kosovo War, according to historical Ottoman architecture, and is one of the many protected monuments in Kosovo.
Rugova Valley / Peja
After breakfast, you'll be transferred to the village of Drelaj, which is deep in the Rugova Valley and close to the Montenegrin border (approximately 30 minutes). The Rugova Mountains rise to over 2400 metres and were declared a national park in 2013. Drelaj will be your base to explore the surrounding area on a 3 to 4-hour guided hike. The Rugova Valley is often compared to Switzerland in its landscape, and here at the foot of Hjala mountain, be surrounded by tall grass pastures dotted with wildflowers, the sound of cow bells drifting through the valley, and simple wooden shacks and stone houses with smoke drifting up to the granite cliffs above. Afterwards, you'll be able to rest your weary bones with lunch at a local family home. Head back to the hotel in the early evening, with your night then free – perhaps try the local Birra Peja, brewed here in town.
Gjakova / Prizren
Journey to the south of the country today, to Kosovo's second biggest, and arguably its most beautiful, city – Prizren (approximately 1.5 hours). Along the way, you’ll stop by Gjakova to walk to the Sufi Tekke of the Halveti Order (one of the Dervish sects). It is very interesting as we get to talk often to the Sheh of the order. Inside of the tekke, there are graves of all the previous sheh's since 1600 when the order was established. Afterwards, walking along the Carshia (main street), and stop at the Mosque of Hadumi. If you’re lucky, the main Imam of Gjakova will speak to you and give an Albanian interpretation of Islamic dogmas (principles), with plenty of time for questions. Later on, head to Prizren, with a stop at a restaurant on the Drini River. On arrival, head out an orientation walk, strolling alongside the Bistrica river, taking in the cobbled Shadervan square and the Old Stone Bridge. Explore the city’s famous mosques contrasted with abandoned Serbian Orthodox churches. Wander the streets and do some people watching in in Shadervan square, before another memorable Balkan sunset.
Today is free to explore the city's sights, after venturing out on an included visit to Prizren's sixth century Kalaja Fortress. This fortress sits proudly on a hilltop above the town and has a 43-step staircase hidden in a tunnel that connects to the river, and gives you views over the city. Make sure you visit the House of the Albanian League of Prizren, where in 1878 the Assembly of Prizren gathered to consolidate Albanian leaders to unite and protect the country against foreign threats. If you feel energetic, you may want to consider walking upstream along the Bistrica River, where you might meet locals tending to their flocks of sheep among mountainous scenery. Otherwise, if your group is up for it, get together to hire a minibus and drive for about an hour for lunch and wine tasting in the vineyards of Rahovec. The owners of wineries and cultivators of grapes are there to talk about the production technologies and approaches. After this, you could go for a walk along the vineyards just outside the town. This region in Kosovo is picturesque and has been a highlight for many travellers. Afterwards, spend another night in Prizren, where there’s a lot of great eateries. Prizren is commonly known as the gastronomic heart of Kosovo.
Prishtina / Prizren
Take a day trip to Prishtina and surrounds. The capital of Kosovo is currently reinventing itself as a major commercial centre in the region, and its historical importance makes it an essential highlight. First head to Kosovo Polje (Field of Blackbirds), which the country is named after. There is a memorial here that commemorates the important 1389 battle of Kosovo – a skirmish that led to the Ottoman Empire finally taking control of this area of the Balkans. Nearby is the tomb of Sultan Murat, leader of the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century. You'll then get to visit the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Gracanica Monastery – one of King Milutin's last monumental endowments. The afternoon is free to explore the vibrant city of Prishtina, perhaps visiting the Ethnographic Museum, the Sultan Fatih Mosque or the Kosovo Museum. Check out the Newborn Monument, which was unveiled on the day Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. Nearby is a brass statue of Bill Clinton – thanks for the President’s role in ending the war. After exploring the city, head to the nearby Bear Sanctuary – a 16-hectare area of woodland providing a home for rescued dancing bears.
Craggy mountain backdrops, time-weathered monasteries, stunning lake panoramas, hearty national cuisine – North Macedonia is jam-packed full of the good stuff. Excellent hiking can be had in the mountain forests, Lake Ohrid’s waters rival the clarity of Croatia’s, and 500 years of Ottoman rule can be acutely felt in the capital’s bazaars. And to round it all out, the locals will be delighted to have you. This morning head out early and travel to Skopje, North Macedonia's capital city. Upon arrival, take an orientation walk past Byzantine domes, Turkish baths, and also newly built neo-classical buildings and grand monuments. In the afternoon, wander past the mosques, caravanserais and hamams that fill its winding streets – a testament to Skopje’s Ottoman past. Perhaps take a step back to those times with a visit to the Daut Pasha Hamam, or journey through the humbling Holocaust Museum to learn how Macedonia suffered during this tragic chapter of history.
Matka Canyon / Skopje
Venture out to Matka Canyon – a deep ravine cut into the Suva mountains by the Treska River, 15 kilometres southwest of the city. This area is home to several medieval monasteries, caves, and over 70 species of endemic butterflies. There is the option to explore the canyon's sights by boat. Alternatively, you can take one of the many nature walks in the canyon, or up to tracks that hug the ridge high above the valley. Return back to Skopje, with the remaining part of the day free for you to continue exploring this exciting city. Perhaps take the Mount Vodno cable car to Millennium Cross, and for the views back down across the city. Get lost in the narrow lanes of Carsija – Skopje's most atmospheric neighbourhood or take in the stone bridge over the river Vardar – an iconic sight that acts as a handy connection between Macedonia Square and the Old Bazaar. Perhaps visit the Museum of the City of Skopje, housed in the old Railway Station, which is itself a unique piece of history. For dinner this evening you could head to the Old Bazaar or the restaurants in the Debar Maalo area.
Travel by local bus from Skopje to Ohrid, situated on a lake with the same name (approximately 3 hours). Europe’s oldest lake, and one of the oldest human settlements in the world, Lake Ohrid has a wealth of historic sites and religious monuments to discover. Ohrid is an eternal town, a magical hill whose primordial pulsation links ancient and modern times forever. The town is said to have once been home to 365 churches, one for each day of the year, earning it the nickname ‘the Macedonian Jerusalem’, while historical excavations date back to Neolithic times. Despite being a World Heritage site for over 30 years, the town remains under the radar of visitors. Get your bearings on an orientation walk around Ohrid, maybe picking up a bargain or two in the vibrant Old Bazaar.